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The Awakening

2011 | 107 min | BBFC: 15 | 2.39:1

The Awakening


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Theatrical release date

 17 August, 2012
 11 November, 2011

Country of origin

 United Kingdom

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The Awakening


Screenshots from The Awakening Blu-ray

The Awakening Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 22, 2012

There has been a rash of supernatural stories with period settings in recent years, with “The Woman in Black” a box office smash just this last February. “The Awakening” contains familiar working parts, carrying a somber tone of torment in a secluded English setting, and while the material doesn’t win points for originality, co-writer/director Nick Murphy captures an immersive atmosphere of frights and paranoia, creating a ghost story with a nice kick and deeply felt emotions. The surface details suggest a banal return to a formulaic haunting, yet “The Awakening,” while imperfect, captures an intensity of gradually eroding conviction that carries the iffy material all the way to the intriguing head-scratcher of an ending.

In 1921, author Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) has devoted her lonely life to debunking ghost stories, using her scientific skill and observational gifts to pull back the curtain on paranormal scams. A teacher at a school for boys, Robert Mallory (Dominic West) requests Florence’s presence on the property, hoping the ghost hunter might be able to shed light on a longstanding series of hauntings, possibly tied to a death on the grounds long ago. Accepting the job, Florence sets out to trap a phantom, believing one of the pupils is behind the mischief, erecting a series of contraptions around the house on a quest to disprove the popular poltergeist theory. While certain of her skills, Florence is quickly overcome by the house and its mysterious inhabitants, including housekeeper Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton), slowly turned into a true believer when terrifying visions of a young boy grow in intensity, threatening her sanity.

Character comes to play an important part in “The Awakening,” with lead actress Hall a perfect fit for the role of Florence. A fiercely intelligent woman in an era of blatant sexism and mournful post-war pause, Florence is forced to fight, often futilely, for respect, dealing with gender bias and her controversial field of study, both causing tremendous concern with outsiders. Hall’s performance captures this fatigued confidence superbly, creating a resolute heroine and practiced cynic marching into a situation that’s about to change her life. It’s acting that combines the trembling of madness with credible authority, generating a convincing exploratory position for the viewer to get behind, observing the ghost tracker come to see her worst fears realized when stumbling upon proof of a haunting. While Murphy enjoys the abilities of a capable supporting cast (West is atypically subdued here), Hall provides a rush of feelings and reactions as Florence falls deeper into doubt, giving “The Awakening” a defined dramatic spine.

Working with expected visions of a spooky secluded manor, foggy grounds, suspicious staff (including Joseph Mawle as untrustworthy groundskeeper Edward), and ghostly children, Murphy labors to move “The Awakening” past its clichéd foundation. By using a post-war setting, the screenplay (also credited to Stephen Volk) inspects the ravages of survivor’s guilt, finding Robert having difficulty moving past the loss of his division, punishing himself by secretly reopening a war wound on his leg, permitting direct access to the stain on his soul. There’s also antagonism toward Edward, who feigned injuries to get out of duty, a poorly kept secret that Florence can’t help but wield when cornered by the disturbed man. The fringes of the feature are well cared for, at least showing dramatic effort typically ignored in the genre, helping to tighten the grip on the ghost story. Murphy provides knowledge of the characters before he begins the process of mental and physical attrition, giving the events a modest but welcome weight, extracting a satisfying sense of loneliness and isolation that aids in the digestion of the chills.

Florence’s battle with a possible spiritual invasion makes up the majority of “The Awakening,” studying the woman’s efforts to capture evidence of a supernatural event while poring through the manor for clues. The ultimate direction of the story enters a minefield of spoilerish material, but it’s safe to say that visually, the picture manages to locate a personality, using architecture and a seemingly innocuous dollhouse to encourage fear from Florence and the viewer. The actual climax of the film is on the strange side (perhaps it doesn’t add up in full, but it’s handsomely mounted), yet carries a refreshing ambiguity that’s born out of storytelling interest, not a random jab to unnerve. Murphy shows tremendous skill with genre elements, helping “The Awakening” to overcome its formulaic origins, keeping attention on panic and skepticism, not just on cheap thrills.

Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, John Shrapnel, Richard Durden, Diana Kent
Director: Nick Murphy

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